Generations, transparency, social approaches…organizational culture change is coming

curves ahead sign

A recent post from Debra Askanse at Community Organizer 2.0 highlights a new nonprofit organization, emphasizing the ways in which organizational structures created by those who have been steeped in ‘social culture’ and a more transparent approach to organizational functioning are, inherently, distinct from more traditional and hierarchical ways of working.

And that has me thinking about our nonprofit organizations, who’s running them today, and how they may change–taking our sector along with them–as new leadership steers organizations in different directions.

It’s not just that younger leaders have a different ‘style’. In fact, I think that viewing leadership among different generations that way is sort of trivializing the ways in which people are impacted by the cultural milieu in which we are raised. Because what we’re really facing is a different default–a new ‘normal’–and different kinds of ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ questions, framed by those who are not necessarily going to be wedded to doing things the way they’ve been done before.

Debra’s example raises those issues, and, multiplied by many thousands as new organizations are started or new leadership takes the helm of existing ones, it could start to look like a movement.

I see it with my students. Course evaluations are less and less relevant, because students are more and more accustomed to expecting–and demanding–real-time access to me, to address their concerns and get the information they need. They expect a certain level of transparency and accessibility that students even 10 years ago did not, and instructors who cannot get comfortable with those expectations struggle.

I see it in my own children. Just this week, my oldest son was listening to someone talk about their transitional living program for those leaving homelessness at church, and he turned to me and said, “That sounds really strict. If it’s supposed to be people’s home, shouldn’t they get to help decide what the rules are?”

I see it in my consulting practice, where there are often tensions between those within an organization (not necessarily the younger ones, because comfort with social upending of more rigid hierarchy doesn’t necessarily conform along clear generational lines) who see increased transparency as a way to authentically connect to the constituency, and those who resist anything that might erode their perception of confidentiality and ‘appropriate’ communications.

I see it in online discussions about transparency, and what real transparency would mean; some organizations still fear social media because they won’t be able to control the conversation there, while others embrace open dialogue about their work and their cause, because they know that momentum and a sense of grassroots ownership translates into passionate support.

And I see it in colleagues, including those who leave organizations where they don’t feel that their contributions are really valued, unless they make it into upper management, and those who stay in organizations that can’t afford to pay them what they deserve, because they feel so completely a part of the cause.

What do you see, when you look at the nonprofit sector today? What do you see coming? Where do you think we’re positioned to succeed in new ways of operating, and where are we headed for trouble? What will be good–empowering and authentic–about more transparent organizational structures? What concerns you, and what should we be sure to hold onto, from the ‘old way’ of working?

29 responses to “Generations, transparency, social approaches…organizational culture change is coming

  1. Jessica Patterson

    I believe transparency to be a way of being held accountable. My agency has made the news b/c of financial decisions made by the past executive director that were far from transparent. Since that directors departure the agency has talked of becoming more transparent in decision making and spending of tax payer dollars. I am left to wonder though, does more transparency of funding and other decisions lead to fear of making those decisions? When talking a community mental health center, the community is likely to pay attention to those changes, especially if made more transparent. Are those involved in the decisions(often elected officials) going to want to be known for being involved? Would an agency that fears transparency but is forced into accepting it as the “new way” be less likely to make risky decisions for the improvement of services for fear of judgement? Could it lead to more questions by the staff and would that be looked down upon by leadership?

    • broadkawvalley

      Really great points, Jessica! I do think there is a need for some middle-ground, if we are going to keep transparency from keeping great leaders out of executive positions or paralyzing the deliberative process within organizations (because outsiders can never have access to all of the information that leaders use to make decisions, and, so, sometimes they need to be able to weigh these elements to shape their decisions, without that whole process being exposed to public scrutiny). I still think this comes down, on balance, to an argument for more transparency–the risks of the alternative are, I think, greater–but it certainly suggests a need for more thoughtful transparency, rather than a false equating of a total ‘open door’ policy with good governance (the latter of which can happen behind closed doors, too). Thank you for your really thoughtful consideration of this.

  2. Richard O'Brien

    I think greater transparency is driven by social change and also by technology. Now, with social media, it is difficult for any organization to keep information hidden.

    I also believe that the rise of evidence based practice and greater accountability is also driving change. My understanding is that the techniques for accountability and performance management, which I have observed in the business world, are moving to the human services sector. Some of this is driven by cutbacks in funding, the need to justify the money allocated to an agency, and to demonstrate results. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Greater efficiency is something that has been driving American business response to global competition for decades. It was inevitable that the need to be efficient and accountable would move to human service organizations.

    However, there will be a need for the social service agencies to make sure that they do not sacrifice services in the name of efficiency, and do not allow the need for revenue to take precedence over the goals of the agency. The future leaders of non – profits will need to have the skills to balance those two conflicting demands.

    • Great comments, Richard. I really appreciate how you touch on several important aspects of transparency, here–first, the impact of technology on ‘openness’, which may or may not equate to true transparency, and the connection between evidence-based practice and meaningful transparency, understood as stakeholders’ ability to understand organizations’ actions and, then, hold them accountable for delivering promised results. And, finally, you hit on something really critical about the importance of not falsely equating ‘transparency’ with excellence or integrity, but, instead, ensuring that clients’ needs are prioritized authentically, no matter who’s watching. Thank you for sharing.

      On Mon, Apr 14, 2014 at 10:16 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  3. I agree with Richard that transparency is more frequently occurring or more expected because of technology. The world we live in today puts everything online and doesn’t mind sharing everything with strangers. I, on the other hand tend to be very private about most aspects of my life and find it kind of frustrating that my Facebook friends post exactly what they are doing every hour of the day and expect you to like it or comment on it, and if you don’t they post even more. I see this with the staff that work for the program that I help run. They will text all hours of the day and on the weekend to ask simple questions that they could probably answer for themselves if they really thought about it, but expect me to be right there to answer at a moments notice. And these people are the future of our nonprofit companies. Those of the “give-me-give-me” generation that expect answers right now or else.
    I do feel that change is a good thing, and that the upcoming generations have a lot to offer because they do ask more questions and don’t necessarily conform to the old ways of doing something just because that is how it always has been. But I am concerned that the future of the nonprofit sector and every business for that matter is headed toward everyone communicating with a computer screen or some handheld device equivalent. Having more transparent organizational structures will be good because it doesn’t leave room for secrets and upholds nonprofits to a higher expectation of integrity, openness, and genuine concern for client care. My biggest concerns with transparency is unreal expectations from supervisors of the future like being on call and accessible 24/7, because I do not see that boding well for a social workers self-care and feel that could also lead to a higher rate of burnout and turnover.

    • Yes, absolutely that’s the ‘other side’ of transparency, and should absolutely be a concern. How do we promote good governance, which has to mean something other than just laying bare the organization (including exposing staff to unrelenting access and scrutiny)? What will generational differences mean for expectations about how organizations communicate, and how can we use those impulses to our advantage?

  4. This new age of technology needs to be welcomed, encouraged, and embraced. The fear of these experiences and opinions will just be broadcasted on another online website such as Facebook or Twitter. This is the new way of communication; people need to stop worrying about how they will be perceived because this hinders change due to no one sharing their voice. As long as people are genuine in their presentation, politically correct language can be overlooked. We need more change and more voices need to be heard. It feels as if progression has taken a break, like we have changed all that we need. Not at all, this calls for more action as individuals in order to continue this process of change. If people were nervous about being politically correct or how they would be perceived in the 1960’s, important changes would have been a lot slower process. Transparency should be welcomed as a faster way to achieving change and then corrections and concerns can follow if needed. Court decisions always seem to have made a big impact on needed changes.

  5. And we were just talking about transparency in class on Saturday! I feel that some transparency is required. You said it, people today want to see things immediately, instant gratification, I want answers and want them now. The reign of the top people holding onto all of the information just doesn’t work anymore. People want to be informed about the companies they are working for, especially, I feel in the healthcare and social services fields. We want to make sure we are working for a company that is in line with our values. I don’t think in lies in a generational line as I have seen those that are older adapt easily and those that are younger struggle. The best type of organizations are the ones who can adapt to change of the market. I’ve seen it with my own father who tries to do things the old way in his business and fails. However, when he listens to the people under him who have a greater sense of the current state of affairs, the business tends to succeed. Change in constant and inevitable. As Lee Iacocca said “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

    • So do you think that organizations will inevitably become more transparent, as the leaders who take over live out their generational preferences? Or, conversely, will people eschew their democratic transparency as they take over the reins of power and, then, want to hold onto that control? In other words, will they change what leadership means…or be changed by leadership?

  6. I feel that we are in a culture that requires transparency now more than it has in the past – in as little as ten years ago, with the dawn of the IPhone and FaceBook . When I went to interview for my practicum it caught me a little off guard that I needed to be somewhat transparent to succeed. If people want to know about you, all they have to do is google you – they can read all about you before you even walk through the door. Your challenge is to engage that person and show them that you are more than the bylines on a website. As our technology increases, the level of transparency will most likely increase to “keep up”. As a culture it’s important to remember to keep the things that make us individuals – so that we don’t become so transparent that we resemble a pane of glass.

    • YES, Chris! Great reflections on transparency, and boundaries, and respect for both, as healthy organizational and individual practices. We can too easily, I think, confuse transparency with accountability, assuming that if we’re ‘an open book’, then everything must be okay, when those are, of course, two distinct goods. When might too much transparency be harmful? How can we recognize those risks?

  7. Chandra Smalley

    Although it may seem like an unreasonable supposition I feel that your previous blog, A Voice for Nonprofits: “The Rules are Never Neutral”, is a great antecedent to this discussion.

    I previously responded to that particular blog in part by stating:
    “Restricting non-profits is restricting a balanced political system. Problem, our political system has never been stable, well-adjusted and constant. It is the evolution that is needed to maintain our system. Just as we have created a division between macro-level social work and micro-level social work when essentially both are needed and there isn’t a definitive line between the two. We as social workers must not sit back and argue over who is right or who is wrong but find ways to cause a pattern of movement that will create a more collectively balanced system.”

    Following that train of thought, new leadership from macro-level social workers can potentially bridge the gap that stems from a large number of non-profit organizations being restricted by their 501(c)3 tax status restricting advocacy practices and political activity potentially resulting in persuasive political power. What skillset better than that of macro-level social workers could create an environment of opportunity and pattern of change and movement. It takes numbers to make a change and we have macro-level social workers with the competencies needed and a field of opportunity.
    Transparency has the capacity for developing trust. I for one respect transparency, when I go to cast my ballot I vote for the political leaders who I believe will do what they have pledged. Before I make a donation I want to know exactly how my money will be used, for those in direct need, advocacy efforts, political activity etc. If not for those in direct need, I want to know what political activities the agency is currently involved in. If they do not support my vision then I will most likely take my donation to an organization that does.
    Mediocre and weak attempts at transparency are more damaging to an organization than no attempt at all. Although they claim differently in their countless commercials, I have not heard one person commit to eating more McDonald’s food because of the company’s attempt at transparency in the processing and preparation of their high quality meat in their spotless facilities.
    I believe organizations will inevitably need to become more transparent because of technological advances and social media. Those that handle this transition effectively will be more successful than those who do things the way they do them because that is how it has always been done. Again, we as social workers must not sit back and argue over who is right or who is wrong but find ways to cause a pattern of movement that will create a more collectively balanced system.

  8. I am fascinated, Chandra, by how much of the difference in orientation to transparency really does seem to break down along generational lines. What you said about trusting transparency makes perfect sense from your perspective…but I just don’t hear the same conviction from those who are 50+. I appreciate your distinction, too, between real transparency, and hollow efforts. How can we ensure that our organizations’ efforts are the former, not the latter?

  9. Erica Rose-Hunter

    I think this topic is quite compelling. I do think my generation of social workers, and workers in general, are different. I’m 31, and my generation is looking for more control and “say so” in what they do and how they do it. I think the social workers of my time are more hands on and active. I know a social worker who became one when she says a change happened in the requirements to refer to yourself as one. She is more into administration. She is not in the streets advocating and being with the people like I chose to do. I also see a difference in the way I personally view studies and instructors. I find that in my graduate studies, I don’t want to just read out of a book; I want real life examples and activity. I know quite a few students in my classes who feel the same. I am finding people who think advocacy does not involve being with the people do not last long in this field. Last, I think my generation is less about being “loyal” to jobs, and more about going to organizations that have what they are looking for. I know personally I feel that I am as loyal as an organization to me; too many organizations view employees as expendable. I see more people starting their own businesses instead of working for someone else.

  10. I was just having this conversation today, Erica! I am fascinated by the changes that generational shifts will bring to nonprofit organizations, social movements, and the public sector. More fluidity, perhaps more challenge to hierarchy, more innovation? And, yet, high levels of student debt may hinder risk-taking and lead people to choose careers that offer stability, and retirement may really cease to exist as a concept, and the concept of division between work and personal time is increasingly eroding. How do you see this shaking out, for your generation in the future?

  11. It seems that lately the idea of a non-profit agency is dying out, while the aspects of for-profit agencies with sliding scales and different payment options are increasing. However, it also seems that the new age of technology are not as openly welcomed and that conversations and promotions of agencies are limited. With the new age of Facebook, Twitter, and other means of promotion and advertising, it confuses me that agencies would not be open to having previous customers, employees, etc. broadcast the agency and their good-doings. In order for non-profits to be promoted, more voices need to be heard and change needs to occur. It seems that it is getting harder and harder to find non-profit agencies who are able to help, and much easier to find agencies who are willing to help at a cost.
    Within the past decade it has become much easier to find reviews, information, etc. about an agency or even an individual person. For the most part, this can be a good aspect. If the reviews are decent, the organization or individual appears to be a good fit. However, one bad review has the potential to overcast multiple good reviews. This is the type of downfall technological advancements have on any organization and the risk the organization takes on having open conversations between previous and future clients.

  12. Really interesting comments, Gina. I wonder if some of what we’re seeing isn’t a sort of clinging to old models of doing ‘business’ as nonprofits, sort of a reaction to the changing trends, and that adaptation and adjustment might come as organizations (so, really, their leaders!) accept that times have truly changed. As an example, I don’t hear quite as often the concern that nonprofits can’t have social media presences because they ‘can’t control’ what people are saying about them online. A few are even embracing more communication back and forth with clients and erstwhile ‘reviewers’…even if that’s still a fairly foreign concept for nonprofits. The point about it being harder to find organizations offering free assistance, to me, illustrates the intersection between the different tides that are buffeting nonprofit leaders. At the same time that their operations are more exposed to the public, they are also grappling with serious threats to their survival (including retreating public funds, which make it harder to finance charitable activities). This, of course, makes innovation and adaptability even more important…but it can also contribute to this sense that things are spiraling out of control, which might slow the pace of progress in the short term.

  13. Kristina Knight

    It is interesting for me to read this blog post because I have volunteered with a non-profit organization that has been around for 50+ years. In the beginning years, the organization was ran out of somebody’s house as they took in people who were homeless for the night due to drug use. Now, the organization is a suicide crisis center that is located in an office building. Before I started with the organization, I know there was a tremendous shift in management due to the “old” managers not wanting to change the way things were being ran. When that management was let go, it opened up numerous roads to new outreach efforts, advocacy opportunities, and client centeredness that the organization would not have had if the old management “won” at not changing the organization.

    I feel that it is always important to keep up with the current state of society, especially in the social work field. Even though workers are also demanding more transparency from their organizations, clients are also expecting new transparencies. The creation of technology, social media, and e-mail leave clients in constant connection with their social workers. If a social worker is unable to meet those needs, then that client will move on to somebody who can meet their needs. I don’t think we as social workers are headed into trouble when it comes with connecting with clients as long as we maintain the boundaries and expectations on both ends of the practitioner-client relationship.

  14. What sparked the new management at that organization? It can be really tough to catalyze that kind of change, especially when there is a lot of reverence for those founders. Is there anything that you think the organization ‘lost’ in this transition, that you found valuable? It’s important to remember that not everything older is outdated, and that there is value, sometimes, in holding onto traditions and wisdom. I wonder what lessons from the past you could incorporate into the new way.

  15. The mental health community center where I work has been around for quit some time, evolving from a state subsidized non-profit to a more revenue driven agency as a result of ongoing budget cuts. While there have been demonstrable changes to the organizational culture in the time I have been with the agency I have not yet seen an embrace of technological mainstays that are representative of our culture at large as a way to stay engaged with an increasingly technologically savvy populace. However there have been some changes indicative of a shift away from traditional treatment modalities. For example, for many years progress notes were completed by hand, eventually migrating over to an electronic platform for convenience. However staff were still overburdened by “paperwork” requirements and frequently submitting documentation late which then impacted the agency’s ability to bill for services. To approach this problem creatively, the administration secured funds for new lightweight laptops that could be used in the field so that staff could complete documentation while with clients thereby cutting down on delays in submission.

    If such non-traditional approaches could be employed in other client service related areas such as outreach and intervention, I think we could begin to see a true paradigm shift in the way we engage with our community.

  16. Has there been any reflection, Ben, after this change, so that people can talk through what the outcomes have been, what was hard about making the shift, and what lessons should be learned? I think that’s really important for girding yourselves to make the next ‘leap’, if you can find ways to incorporate that shared learning into the organization’s standard operations.

  17. I pride myself in being radically open/transparent, I try to be at least. I find it to be the most authentic thing that anyone can do for another human being because it takes a lot to be vulnerable, accessible and available. The difference between myself and an organization, though, is that we do not pride transparency as a society. We want it but we do not center it in the way that I feel we should. We say we are available but we are not accessible, if that makes sense. Transparency is a lot more then a word, it is a way of being, in my opinion.
    In the case of Boys and Girls Club, transparency is not real at the organizational level. Now, when it comes to being accessible to know about what is going on in a child’s day from us, we are the most transparent people around. I am invited to recitals, I am going to events, I got kids running up to me at the story screaming “Mr. Isaac” because of how I do my work there. The next step would be the organization itself not switching to appeal to the masses but showing what really is needed and wanted by our clients, the kids. We keep changing things to make it easier on the group leaders but that is making it harder for kids to thrive in the organization. It is messy and I have a lot of feelings about it that are leaning one way so I may not be the best person to discuss with about it. This is what I see though, everyday, and I am there for a very long time everyday.

  18. Yes, Isaac, I agree that we ‘talk’ transparency much more than we really live it. We like the idea of openness, but not so much the inevitable discomfort that comes with revealing ourselves to others. Do you see any examples of organizations that you see as at least further along the ‘transparency’ continuum, in the direction of something you can feel good about? What are you looking for in an organization, in terms of a place where you can be at least relatively transparent within a work context?

  19. It’s almost as if it’s impossible to live, work, or operate an organization honorably without being transparent. This being said, I do believe my organization is much less than transparent. There have been instances of staff being terminated, and the organization lets the problem simmer instead of addressing it directly. Staff members will gossip more if they believe their jobs are on the lines and there is no explanation. They instruct us to tell community members that we have no information to provide them with as to why their practitioner is no longer with our practice. I personally believe this is no way to run an organization. I think there is a certain level of transparency that needs to be achieved in order to keep staff and clients happy. Without transparency, it is as if the organization has something to hide, and this just seems fishy.

  20. I don’t hear many voices arguing against transparency these days; what I do think is more contentious is the definition of ‘transparency’, which seems to mean different things to different people. It also seems to me that there’s a distinction to be drawn between being less than transparent and expecting staff to actually obscure the truth…and it does sound like the latter is what you’re experiencing. What do you think makes leadership feel compelled to be so secretive? What do you think could disrupt that part of the culture?

  21. Katie J Stoddard

    This blog reminded me of a TED talk I recently listened to about transparency. It was super interesting and included a story of a woman who lost a child in a hospital due to the errors of a nurse and of a technical alarm system. It pointed to the closure this mother received from that hospital through their transparency of what actually happened, and not just hiding behind lawyers and sweeping the issue under the rug. This same mother now holds a new position within this same hospital that specifically deals with being more transparent with the patients and families that they serve. There was another story about an organization that is transparent to the point of knowing how much money everyone within that organization makes. The CEO also encouraged and required direct criticism of his leadership style and decisions from all employees, and not anonymously.
    There were mixed emotions on this level of transparency, but overall seemed to work for them. It seems this idea of transparency is catching on and more hospitals/organizations are adopting this often difficult principle. In terms of social media, I have purposefully ignored it for the most part and take pride in telling organizations that I am applying at that I don’t have any social media, but instead prefer the more private and simple life. This does not necessarily mean I cannot be transparent with them or anyone I choose to be transparent with. It’s nice having that choice though. I believe organizations should have that choice and find a balance between transparency and privacy, erring on the side of transparency at least within the organization. I am not quite sure what this looks like for a nonprofit, but I believe it at least starts with open and honest communication as well as the welcoming of all kinds of feedback and input without fear of retribution.

    • Thanks for sharing these reflections, Katie. I have become increasingly convinced that the real risk is in organizations thinking that transparency is a ‘cure’ for struggles within their organizations, or that transparency is to be exalted above all else. We see this in policy, too, with some thinking that just giving people more information is necessarily the ‘answer’, when we also need to attend to the underlying issues. At the same time, when we assume that putting things ‘out in the open’ is necessarily dangerous, we potentially shut off important lines of communication and feedback…and it’s clear that that can have disastrous effects for organizational growth and development.

  22. Marissa Martin

    Interesting topic! Personally, I align transparency with honesty and accountability. It is important to me to be involved with an organization that has little to hide from its members. It’s hard for me to gauge how transparency has changed in the realm of social work since I’ve only been a part of it for two years, but I feel as though my current agency is fairly transparent with its employees. I believe that this is a good thing because it would keep all of the agency workers on the same page when it comes to policy changes that could impact direct practice. I feel more connected with my management team when they’re transparent with me because it makes our relationship seem more genuine.

    That being said, I do understand that management teams have an obligation to keep certain information private from the rest of the organization (e.g. issues with specific team members, client information, etc.). This should be a common understanding among all staff members, but there are some matters that both groups may disagree on when it comes the transparency of these issues.

    For example, an agency may experience a significant loss in funding which would lead to a large number of layoffs. Management may argue to keep this information private from the rest of the staff in order to keep the staff members from becoming incredibly anxious about their job security, thus negatively impacting their output levels. Management staff may also argue to keep this information private because there could possibly be a solution they could come up with to keep these layoffs from occurring. The staff may argue that they deserve to know about potential layoffs in order to best prepare themselves in case they may lose their jobs. Many workers may have families to support, so they would value transparency about this issue for the sake of their family’s well-being.

    • Good point, Marissa–I think that most people within a social work organization would agree that most information should be shared transparently, and, simultaneously, that that probably doesn’t mean absolutely everything…the bit point of contention, usually, is exactly where to draw that line. Have you had any experiences in organizations (not necessarily social work ones) that have been less than transparent? What are the effects of those practices, on worker morale, engagement with customers/clients, and overall functioning?

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